Helping Alberta businesses capitalize on hydrogen innovation opportunities

Michelle BodnarMount Royal University | Posted: June 1, 2023

Peter Fenwick, director of scale-up and growth programming at MRU.

Peter Fenwick is the director of scale-up and growth programming at Mount Royal University.

A partnership between Edmonton Global and Mount Royal University’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has resulted in the development of the province’s first Hydrogen Innovation Accelerator (HIA) program.

Edmonton Global is a foreign direct investment and international business development agency representing 14 municipalities in the region and several business sectors. Hydrogen is forecasted to be an $11-12 trillion market in the next few decades, and with the recent establishment of the Edmonton Region Hydrogen Hub with the support of Edmonton Global and others, Alberta is poised to drive innovation in production, transportation and hydrogen usage.

The Edmonton area is already one of the lowest-cost producers of hydrogen in the world, a job it has been doing for decades. The HIA’s focus is on driving the growth of the hydrogen economy and ensuring regional companies benefit from this new opportunity in the energy sector.

"We’re excited to partner with Mount Royal University to deliver this critical programming,” says Malcolm Bruce, CEO of Edmonton Global. “MRU has a strong history of delivering SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) innovation programming and understands the needs of private industry when it comes to incorporating new innovations and strategies. The HIA will help Alberta companies discover new opportunities in a transitional energy economy while providing a disciplined and proven approach to strategy and planning of corporate expansion and business-model pivots.”

Opportunities already identified

Work achieved by MRU’s previous Innovation Accelerator programming includes a Hydrogen Diesel Dual-fuel (HD2F) Innovation Accelerator in 2021 as well as faculty lead Dr. Simon Raby, PhD’s role in a locomotive dual-fuel program with Foresight Canada. MRU has already helped identify opportunities for dual fuel as a transitional energy solution to offset the demand for fossil fuels. This was a major reason why Edmonton Global ended up choosing MRU as its partner, says Peter Fenwick, director of scale-up and growth programming at MRU.

It’s those exact sorts of ideas the HIA will assist in supporting. Existing SMEs may achieve growth by identifying new opportunities related to the hydrogen sector, which the HIA will then help them to operationalize. Alberta businesses can move from the idea of creating a hydrogen business or service line to testing commercial viability in just three months.

Fenwick has a history of helping move businesses through transformative change. He says, "There is no better time for Alberta businesses to explore the promise of hydrogen market opportunities. Global trends of this magnitude are rare, and even more rare is the ability to participate."

The first cohort of company teams will begin this September, with a Hydrogen Hack to generate awareness and demand taking place in June. The HIA will produce four more sets over the next 18 months. Fenwick explains that the purpose of the HIA is to help groups envisioning a different future bridge the gap between that vision and today’s realities.

“Alberta is a transitioning economy. Part of that transition is looking at transitional energy opportunities,” he says.

Another opportunity could be the introduction of hydrogen to natural gas, which works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the same way as ethanol in gasoline. This can be done without having to retrofit any appliances and can be distributed to homes in the same way as it is now.

It is also extremely important to fully understand the demand for hydrogen on the retail side, Fenwick says.

Suited for Alberta companies with revenues of from $2- to 200-million per year that also have an interest, or mandate, to participate in the hydrogen market, the HIA provides the corporate entrepreneurship needed to start a new business line while the rest of the company does what they do, Fenwick explains.

“What we're encouraging with this program is to take one small step forward in allowing us to work with companies to think about what a creative process looks like, create some ideas around that creative process, start to put a little bit of meat on the bone, as it were, and not just wait on the sidelines passively. Take one little active step towards considering the potential.”

A portion of $9.7 million in funding from the federal government was allocated to the HIA through Prairies Economic Development Canada to help facilitate this programming. The funding was announced in January to support the creation of more than 1,600 jobs and ensure Alberta continues to be a global leader and great place to invest in the rapidly growing hydrogen sector.

Mark Lea-Wilson, former director of innovation at Plainsman Manufacturing and an alumnus of MRU’s Innovation Accelerator programming, is now the hydrogen hub lead at The Transition Accelerator. Pointing to the effectiveness of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s programming, Lea-Wilson says, "Prior to the innovation accelerator, we had a fairly robust product development program that was very rigid and rigorous. However, as a result of the program, that process has become a lot more organic and intuitive.”

Discover possibilities for business expansion through Alberta’s Hydrogen Innovation Accelerator.